When Humidity is Good

I may catch hell from some people about this post. It’s predictable.

Hum

After the jewelry cabinet, I really wanted to do a couple of smaller projects. I’ve had some lumber I picked up at an estate sale that I’ve hung onto for special occasions – one piece was the figured maple for the jewelry cabinet. Another piece was dark… I though maybe it was Texas Ebony, but I was way off (as you’ll see).  I decided to build a humidor.

image (1)

Yes, I smoke the occasional good cigar. (NOT cheezmo cheap stinkers.) Yes, I know I probably shouldn’t, but something else is far more likely to kill me before that does (like inhaling wood dust… more on that to follow).

The wood was very dark, dense, and close-grained. It had a slight lateral twist that had to be removed, but was too big for my little jointer by about two inches. So I set up a sled for the planer, shimmed under the warp, and ran it through several times until the first side was flat. Then flipped the board, and planed the other side to parallel.

Imagine my surprise when this was how it came out of the planer.

image (2)After scratching my head a while, I decided it might be cocobolo… also a wrong guess. So I drove a piece over to the Schmott Guys at Woodcraft, and asked. It turned out to be Bocote – something I was completely unfamiliar with. It’s a central/south American hardwood. Very dense and heavy (Janka hardness 2,010 lbf). Its hardness is similar to rock maple, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s very, very dense and heavy. But it was an absolute joy to work with.

I had decided to not make this a strictly-hand-tool project, because I wanted to get it accomplished in the short term, and I was unsure about handling this wood without some machine assistance. This was the most amazing wood I’ve ever worked with – it machined flawlessly, almost like working plastic. Like Bubinga, but smoother. After planing or sawing, it only required a light touchup with 220 grit sandpaper to bring out a flawless surface.

The box is very simple: rabbeted joinery, with an inset plywood bottom. I resawed the top into a pair of bookmatched panels.

Once completed, a pass across the table saw cut the grooves in the edges for the inlay. The inlay strips are Gaboon Ebony (which is outrageously expensive, but I was having fun).

image (3)

When the inlays were in place, I hand-planed it all flat, and rounded the edges with a block plane. A pass through the band saw cut the lid free.  Hinge installations were pretty simple – I decided not to use traditional corner hinges, because strength wouldn’t be a major issue. These brass hinges are simple insets, and stop at 110°.

 

image (6)The handle is a small cutoff of ebony, glued in place. The lining of the humidor is Spanish Cedar. This is a critical issue: Spanish Cedar has a cellular structure that retains moisture and helps prevent mold and rot, without being so aromatic as to change the taste of the cigars. The lining should be replace every few years, so the only place where it’s glued in is a couple of tack-spots on the lid and the bottom. The other pieces are just cut tightly to fit, and when the box is seasoned, the cedar swells enough to hold them tightly in place. The upper tray is a simple construction of Spanish Cedar as well.

Today’s Lesson: When you cut or sand Spanish Cedar, wear a damn respirator. Cedar is a tremendous allergen, and I sneezed for three days. Lesson noted.

I decided that this project would be a good time to experiment with something I’ve been wanting to try: I gathered up my courage and attempted French Polish.

Instructions for this are everywhere on the internet. Most of them are very similar, but I had a clear set of instructions from a class at Woodcraft (thanks, Howard) that I followed for this first attempt. Like hand-cut dovetails, I think there’s a lot more made of the process than it really merits. It’s labor-intensive, but not that difficult. Follow the directions for the shellac cut, the fiber content of the pad, and be patient and prepared to do a lot of rubbing. Having said that, I wouldn’t really want to do an irregular surface or inside corners. I can’t even figure out how that would work.image (5)

But this was the perfect project to try it out. It took about three days off and on to finish the polish, but I’m glad I tried it. And now I’m prepared to do it on something more challenging next time.

The humidity for cigar storage should be about 65-70%. I added a small Xikar digital hygrometer and humidifier inside the top lid. To season a humidor, rub down the inside with a pad dampened with distilled water 3-4 times over the first day, then close the box and let the humidity stabilize over the next 48 hours. mine is holding at about 69% at the moment.

My thanks to Scott at Woodcraft for one great piece of advice: Add one seal coat of shellac to the inside of the box before the cedar lining. That keeps the box itself from absorbing the water while it’s stabilizing, and it will go much faster. It also helps keep moisture of the joinery.

This was a great small project, and not at all difficult. I may try another one with more complex inlay and simpler wood grain next time.

More to follow. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

February 2014

 

 

The Mystery Project: The Great Unveiling

I had hoped to blog more thoroughly on the construction, but it wasn’t to be. Work, travel, a minor injury, the holidays, and flu season all conspired against me. I was able to take some construction photos and I’ll attempt to work backwards as I can.

This started out as the ‘mystery’ project when a friend looked at the casework and said, “That can’t possibly be a jewelry cabinet. It’s enormous.”

Well, my wife-unit (Cathrine) seems to accumulate a lot of jewelry. She wound up with necklaces and bracelets stored in their original boxes, stuffed into drawers, and two or three smaller jewelry boxes which contained different pieces. It turned into a jumble of frustration. I decided to end it once and for all with a single wall-mounted cabinet, with room for everything and some room to grow. And yes, it’s big.

WPCab1

Casework:

The cabinet is 28″ x 40″ x 5″.  The casework is walnut, with the two maple panels overlaid across the doors. After debating what to do with the two pieces of maple with their amazing ‘keyholes’, I decided to use them as an overlay for darker wood, and let the walnut show through the openings.  The hinges are european-style Blum 110° soft-closing hinges. All the internal hardware was originally brushed satin, but a couple of spray coats of Behlen dark walnut toner brought them to the bronzed color I wanted.  The project was a combination of machine and hand work – most of the long cuts (and thicknessing) were by machine; all the joinery is hand work.

Problem #1: One of the doors warped just slightly between construction and completion. Fortunately, the hinge adjustments work extremely well, and allowed me to compensate for it so that it’s *just barely* visible if you look directly at the edge of the door from the side.

The cabinet is hung to the wall with two 24″ french cleats in its inset back – one at the very top, butted against the top of the cabinet; the second about halfway down.  I was slightly more comfortable with the weight distribution, and didn’t want the bottom end of the cabinet to ever pull away from the wall.

Joinery:

The case is dovetailed, with a walnut plywood back inset 1/2″ to make room for the french cleats. I believe my dovetails improved considerably over the course of the work.  My instructor at Woodcraft told me once that he allows 30 minutes per drawer for dovetails when doing time estimates for production. I ain’t that fast, and probably never will be. That’s fine; I’m not trying to run a production shop. I also (obviously) don’t see any need to hide layout lines.  These were actually quick-and-dirty layouts for the dovetails; not neatly measured with calipers.  I actually like the look of the slight irregularities of handwork sometimes. Besides, it was great practice.

WPCab2

Interior:

The interior of the cabinet is shelving, drawers, racks for earrings and bracelets, and a small lighted inset display cabinet.  The left door has a padded panel for pins and brooches; the right door has the earring racks.

WPCabInt1Earring Racks and Necklace Holders:

The racks are made of 3/4″ x 3/16″ walnut slats, on raised vertical runners. They have notches and holes to hang various types of earrings.  This was easy construction – I cut the slats 2″ longer than required to allow for clamping, and cut the notches on the table saw as a bunch. Then I drilled out the holes, and cut the bundle to length.

Problem 2 (anticipated): I guessed right on this one – I made three extra slats, on the thought that they might have a blowout while cutting. There were actually two – one from cutting the notches, and one split while drilling. It was good to have spares on hand.

WPEar1

The necklace holders are simple satin-finished pegs (available at Woodcraft or Rockler), treated with Behlen walnut toner. Very easy to install. The downside? They’re *stupidly* expensive – about 8 bucks a pop. But I really didn’t want to use wooden pegs, and scrimping on hardware after this much work makes no sense to me.

The Inset Cabinet
Cathy wanted a place to display her favorite pieces – a flat gold necklace, some rings, and a fine chain pendant. I decided to make an inset cabinet, with interior lighting, customized for these specific items.

WPCabInt2

There’s no ‘back’ to the inset cabinet as such; it’s built flush to the back of the cabinet itself. It’s 12″ x 12″, with a piece of reproduction Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass inset in the door (pegged half-lap joinery).  The glass is patterned after a skylight in the Willits House, and available through www.mackintoshdesign.com.

WPGlass1

Inside the inset cabinet, there is a 25° angled panel with two concentric plywood circles, flocked in black, which hold a flat gold necklace and matching bracelet. On the left, two pegs allow display of a very fine jeweled chain pendant. Ring storage is in padded insets in the lower left.  Two motion-sensitive LED lights were installed in the top, and they come on when the door is open and remain glowing about 30 seconds after it’s closed.WPGlass2

The Bracelet Holders:

The two bracelet racks were made by sandwiching some scrap maple and walnut and cutting it into a cylinder.  The cylinder had two offset 1/2″ holes drilled through it, and then was cut lengthwise between the holes. 1/2″ walnut doweling was glued in place in each section, and then each was mounted to the maple bracket that mounts it to the back of the cabinet.WPBra1

Problem 3: Buy a lathe someday <sigh>. Making the cylinder was considerably more difficult than I expected, because I had to work across the grain with a spokeshave to even it up.

The Pin/Brooch Holder:

This one was easy. A simple frame, with a padded inset held in place by at 1/4″ lip, attached low on the left door. Pins and brooches are threaded into the padding.WPBro

The Drawers:

Now, the real fun begins. Instead of installing pulls or leaving finger holes in the fronts to open them, I fronted each drawer with a piece of 1/2″ maple, leaving an angled gap at the bottom. This forms the ‘handle’ of the drawer, and shows some nice visual offset with the darker walnut. The dovetails went pretty well – by the time the fourth drawer was done, my time had dropped dramatically, and my results were more consistent. The drawers are flocked in black on the inside, and become storage for everything from opera glasses to necklaces laid flat in the shallower center drawers.WPDra1

Problem 4: The sides of the drawer were too thick. I really should have made them out of thinner stock, and allowed more space inside each drawer. Also, the maple fronts took up another 1/2″ of depth out of drawers that were only 4″ deep to begin with.  If I were to redesign these, I’d start with thinner stock.

WPDra2

Finishing:

The interiors got one coat of Watco Danish Oil. The exteriors (and drawer fronts) got two coats of danish oil, one coat of shellac (as a sealant), resanded, then three coats of Deft spray lacquer and some paste wax. I’m pretty monogamous about finishes – I tend to find one I like and stick with it. I’ve had great luck and wearability with this combination.

Conclusions:

WPCab3

As with all good projects, problems become lessons. This was a great exercise for me in casework, joinery, and design – it’s the first design work I’ve attempted on this scale of complexity.

Between the endless delays, this cabinet took several months to complete. I feel good about the outcome, but it left me with an itch to do a couple of small projects before tackling my next furniture.

Oh, yes: there’s a secret compartment. But no telling, she’d shoot me.

Up next: A miraculous discovery hidden in a piece of wood. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

February 2014

Wicked Cool… and How Knot to Make Vise Handles

I read several woodworking magazines. Shop Notes gets browsed and filed, Woodsmith gets read in more detail, Popular Woodworking I read almost cover-to-cover, Wood magazine gets read (mostly), Fine Woodworking I pick up off the newsstand occasionally. The late, (and by me) lamented Woodworking – the finest of them all- gets read again and again and again, and resides in its entirety on my iPad. I look at projects that might be interesting, read the technique articles and tool reviews, and usually extract some things worth keeping. The downside of this armchair-woodworking is that I occasionally find something that is way too cool to not build as soon as I have a chance, no matter what other projects I’m behind on.

A good example of this was something I stumbled on in a back issue of Popular Woodworking (October 2005).  An article by Samuel Peterson called Build an Oil Wicke.  Drop-everything-and-go-build.

If you’ve used hand planes for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that it helps a great deal if you keep the sole of the plane slightly lubricated.  Some people keep an oily rag handy. I’ve seen some woodworkers with a block of paraffin wax that they swipe over the sole of the plane occasionally.  An oil wicke (or plane wicke) is a beautifully archaic tool – a can or box with a rag soaked in oil.  Before planing and every few strokes, you pull the plane backwards across the rag, and it lightly oils the surface.  It helps prevent chatter, lessens the friction in planing, and helps get you through abrupt ‘catching’ in hard woods.

The article recommended using a tin can inset in a block of wood – and the author had a very cool old Kayes oil can he used, with a removable lid.  I couldn’t find anything but a tuna fish can.  That was out.  Then I remembered a post on The Art of Manliness (one of my favorite blogs), called 22 Manly Ways to Reuse an Altoids Tin. I had one handy (Ginger, of course), and decided it would be perfect for #23.

I had a pretty hefty rectangular scrap of mesquite in the bin left over from the Roubo du Garage. That was ideal, because I wanted the wicke to be heavy enough that it wouldn’t try to slide around the bench in use.  I sawed the top third off the block, and routed out the openings to hold the two pieces, leaving the bottom of the tin protruding about 1/8″ above the block.  (No, I didn’t route out the recesses by hand, and if you’ve ever worked in mesquite, you know why.)  I glued the two pieces in with epoxy, and when finished setting, the lid snaps into place pretty tightly.  I cut the beveled sides of the box, and shaped it with a smoothing plane and the belt sander.  The handle is a piece of scrap left over from the recent picture frame (wine stoppers, box handles, and I’ve still got a couple of feet left over. Who knows?). One coat of danish oil, and a pass through the Beall Wood Buffer.

The article recommended using raw linseed oil (not boiled; it’s a combustion risk) or mineral oil. I have a bottle of camellia oil I use to help prevent rust, and decided to try that.  Not only does it work, it works so beautifully that I had to be careful to hang on to the plane.  One swipe backwards, ten strokes, swipe again.  I’m completely converted, and the wicke looks good enough that I can put it in my tool cabinet without wincing whenever I see it.

Since that went so smoothly (sorry), I decided to piddle around on another shop project I’ve been putting off. One of the problems with woodworking is that it’s self-perpetuating – I tend to spend as much time on small projects for the shop as I do actually making other stuff. 

The handle for my Veritas sliding tail vise is either soft maple or poplar or some other innocuous white wood, and I decided that I wanted to replace it with a mesquite handle to match the other mesquite vise hardware on the Roubo.  Mesquite doweling isn’t exactly available at Lowe’s (surprise, surprise).

I grabbed another scrap of mesquite, milled it square, and clamped it in the vise.  A few minutes with a plane (sliding gracefully thanks to the oil wicke) and a spokeshave, and I had a dowel – even round enough to pass the “roll across the workbench” test.  Beautiful grain; it had a large knot in the middle, as mesquite so often does.  I polished it, screwed the ends back on, and the vise handle no longer glared at me in shining white.

I clamped up a scrap of wood, racked the vise shut, tightened it… and BAM.  The handle shattered across the knot.  D’oh.  What was I thinking? Vise handles take a lot of stress.  Stick to straight grain. <sigh> 

From tree to cutoff to vise handle to firewood.  What a journey for that little piece of mesquite. Meanwhile, it was good practice in planing dowels.

Ross Henton

Finishing Touches

It’s a small thing. But signing your work is part of leaving your mark on the world.  I’ve tried more than one day to do it, and seen many others.  I’ve signed some pieces with a sharpie, which works very well.  I’ve seen some commercial branding irons, mostly with block lettering and little images of hand tools.   I think they look a little impersonal, though. There’s also a branding iron (even an electric one) made from  your signature. They’re pretty expensive, and I don’t do enough volume of work to justify it.

What I’ve settled on for now is simple.  I burn my initials into an out of the way place, drill a small 3/4 inch inset next to them, and glue a penny into it minted in the year the project was made.

I’ve been told that it’s a very old tradition, and was originally done as an offering to appease household spirits.  It fell out of custom, but was revived when coins started being dated. It became convenient (and cool) way to date your work.

The flocking on the boxes dried enough to be safe to handle after about 48 hours.  It’ll still be soft enough that it requires care for a few more days, but it’s tough enough now to pass the boxes along to their new owners.

The Two Sisters

I took the plunge, rented the Lowe’s truck (the Borg shuttle, if you prefer), and bought the wood for the Roubo Monstrosity. About twenty pieces of 2″x10″x8′ southern yellow pine.  Now the north side of my garage shop is a huge pile of lumber on small spacers (called “stickers”) to allow air to flow.  Most of it is between 15 and 20 percent humidity, and will have to equalize with the moisture level of the shop for some time before I can start construction. Probably about three weeks.

Meanwhile, it gives me the chance to finish some storage projects, and make some small stuff.  Little weekend projects are really gratifying.  I can look at the Stickley table with pride, but it also took me about three months to finish.  Boxes (at least simple ones) give me some good instant gratification.

A good friend has two beautiful daughters, and I’ve been promising her that I’d make a couple of jewelry boxes for them.  I wanted to make two boxes that were similar form, but of different woods.  What I decided on was to make a pair of band saw boxes in contrasting woods, and switch the drawers.  Band saw boxes look like they might be really difficult, but the truth is that I find them almost embarrassingly easy.

The pattern I used is from Lois Keener Ventura’s wonderful book Building Beautiful Boxes with Your Band Saw. My technique differs slightly from hers, but the basic construction is the same.

The boxes start as a slab of wood. Not a solid slab, but a glued-up slab of several pieces of 3/4″ stock.  A single block would tend to crack over time. The glued-up slab is easy, and also allows for some design possibilities as the grain of the wood goes back and forth. Get a good spread of glue; you don’t want it to separate later.  I use a glue spreader made out of an old credit card cut along the edges with a pair of the wife-unit’s pinking shears. For this project, one block is cherry, and the other is maple.

The pattern is printed out on paper, and spray-glued to one face of the block.  Patterns for these boxes range from simple to complex.  My favorite ones are usually the simplest ones – I love the organic design of them.  I’ve done several of my own pattern, but I especially like this one.

Once the glue is dry, set the block pattern side up, and cut out the outside shape of the box.  Then set it on its “bottom”, and saw a panel off the “back” (the face opposite the pattern) about 3/8″ thick, and set it aside. Set the block pattern-up again, and cut out the drawer. It will probably require two cuts to do this – stopping the  band saw and backing the blade out of the first cut. Take the drawer piece, saw both faces off at 3/8″, and set them aside. Turn the drawer block on its side, and remove the two parts that will be the inside of the drawers.

This all sounds much more complex to write than it really is.  It took about 15 or 20 minutes to make the cuts for each box.

Sand or scrape the insides of the front and back panels of the frame and the drawers just enough to remove any marks left by the band saw. Then glue the faces on the drawer, and the back on the frame.  Clamp well, and allow to dry for a couple of hours.

This is where my technique differs from Lois Ventura’s: she recommends shaping the edges of the frame and the drawer on a belt sander.  I put a 1/4″ bearing-guided router bit in the router table, and pass the drawer and the frame along the bit to soften the edges instead. I get more consistent results, and I’ve over-sanded accidentally a couple of times and ruined the fit of a drawer that way.  There is one caveat to the router technique: make certain the bearing of the bit is set lower than the thickness of the wood on all the parts you’re working. If the bearing rides over the edge of the wood, it will cut into the edge and completely ruin it.

None of this takes very long – up to this point. Then the sanding starts.

Sand, sand, and sand more. Start about 120 grit, and sand the outer frame of the boxes on a benchtop belt sander. Shank a sanding spindle into a drill, and use it to sand the insides of the box (the inside of the drawers doesn’t matter much, as you’ll see). Sand the edges by hand. Resand the outside by hand. Then move up a grit, and do it all again. Finish at about 220 grit.  It’s great exercise, trust me.

On these two boxes, I did something new (to me). I sank a small steel screw into the back of the drawers, and countersunk a small rare-earth magnet into the back of the box. It’s just strong enough to keep the drawer closed, and I think I’m going to do it on all of these from now on.

The handles are mesquite, and are bandsawn freehand and shaped on a belt sander.  They’re attached to the front of the drawers with super glue. Then I flooded all the parts with a thick coat of danish oil, let it sit a few minutes, and wiped it off.

Making these two boxes took about four or five hours work in construction. Most of that was sanding.  This morning, I polished them on the Beall Wood Buffer – an amazing system; took about 20 minutes for both boxes.

The inside of the drawers is flocking; a sort of powdered felt.  All you have to do is spread glue on the parts you want to line, and dust them heavily with the flocking.  Let it dry overnight, and blow the excess out with some compressed air.  Flocked surfaces need to sit for two or three days for the glue to harden completely, or the flocking will still be soft enough to deform easily by mishandling it.

Making the two boxes at the same time did speed things up, but they’re still not an exacting project.  Single drawer boxes like this are easy one-day projects, and one of my favorite things to do.  There’s a lot of variance to the techniques used. All you really have to have is a band saw, clamps, and the patience to do a lot of sanding.

Next time: More storage, preparations for the workbench, and maybe other small projects.